T he Hunger Games and Harry Potter are among the two most successful and influential cross-media franchises in recent decades. The books were widely read, the movies widely watched, and the arrival of a new book or movie in the series was a big cultural moment. When pop culture objects become as wildly popular as these two series, they often take on a greater importance and resonance than those who occasioned them intended. We can only speculate, but in light of the enduring success of the latest Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, it’s possible to read the evolution between these two series as a sort of hardening of heart toward government that reflects the increasing anger Americans feel towards political authority. A lot happened between 1997, when the first Harry Potter book was published, and 2008, when the first Hunger Games novel went on sale—not only 9/11 and two bungled wars, but Katrina and the financial crisis and ensuing recession. There’s a popular feeling that America has become decadent in the sense that Jacques Barzun outlines in his masterwork From Dawn to Decadence: a stalled society that can see no clear possibilities for advancement or improvement. Catching Fire suggests that the Obama years have only intensified this feeling.
A day or two before I saw Catching Fire, I stumbled across an insightful article by Emily Asher-Perrin about the Harry Potter series. The essay zooms in on one character in particular, Neville Longbottom, who plays “the tag along friend who looks up to the [main] trio, but is looked down on by everyone else for not being remarkably talented or suave.” The real significance of Neville, as Asher-Perrin points out, is that he keeps faith with the good guys, even if they don’t always see his value—in stark contrast with other under-appreciated characters in the series. Because of that, he ultimately is pivotal in destroying Lord Voldemort, the books’ nefarious villain.
Asher-Perrin’s piece is a particularly clear expression of the animating moral sense that has attracted people to Harry Potter since the first book came out. The moral universe of Harry Potter might best be summed up by a quote from the movie version of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In that movie, one of the characters say that some believe “it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness, and love.”
Harry Potter repeatedly echoes this theme, contrasting the acts of love between friends with the ineptitude of the state. It’s not only Voldemort’s desire for dominance and immortality that gives power a bad name; it’s also the way people in authority hinder or fight the good that the main characters are trying to do. From beginning to end the Ministry of Magic—the political authority in the wizarding world—stands in the way of the good guys, first by denying that Lord Voldemort—presumed dead at the start of the series—could come back, then by placing a tyrannical bureaucrat in charge of the school in which much of the series takes place, then by responding overzealously and ineffectively to Voldemort’s return, and finally by capitulating to Voldemort. All the good that is done in the series, all the important victories against evil, are won in spite of the bumbling Ministry.
The political system is broken in Harry Potter, and only by working as renegades outside it can our heroes ultimately save it. But revolution or rebellion is never seriously considered; the state isn’t the enemy to be fought as much as it is an impediment to achieving righteous goals. Despite the obstacles the Ministry puts up throughout the series, Voldemort is from first to last the real enemy and in fighting him the characters are on their own. Once they realize the government won’t help them, what Harry and his friends want is for adults in power to get out of their way.
Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the Potter series, shows this perfectly: Harry and his friends form a group to train themselves in magical self-defense, and the Ministry comes to believe that this group is a kind of revolutionary force that aims to overthrow it. But the group was precisely the opposite: a society in which Hogwarts students could learn the skills they need to defeat the evil loose in the world, since the state refused to teach them. The group is an attempt to make up for the state failing in its educational duties. It’s the extra-political acts of loyalty, friendship and love—filling in for the absent state—that motivates the students, not political revolution.
Even when the government in the Harry Potter series is eventually captured by Voldemort, its main evil—the “blood cleansing” whereby wizards with non-wizard blood are tracked down and possibly killed—horrifies us, but it doesn’t hit home in any personal way. Blood purity obviously brings Nazi Germany to mind, an evil that most Americans think of as very much behind them. The choice to use a long-defeated regime as the model for the book’s main evil means that Harry Potter feels politically “safe.”
In the end, Harry Potter dispatched its villain in a way that coheres with the general moral sense of the book: in a duel, without the good guy ever once having uttered the usual spell that wizards use to kill each other. Years later, we are treated to an epilogue in which Harry and his friends are living comfortable, normal lives, and all seems to be well in the Wizarding world.
With the Hunger Games, we’re in a much darker and more complicated universe. Harry Potter features scenes of torture and death, but in the Hunger Games the violence has systematic, state backing from beginning to end. The state isn’t just hidebound and inefficient; rather, it’s the very actor that sets up and sustains structures of violence (the eponymous “hunger games,” deadly contests in which children are forced to fight to the death in order to remind defeated rebels of the government’s power).
We might say that in Harry Potter, socio-political authority in the hands of officious bureaucrats is often represented as a distraction. There is a kind of disillusionment with authoritative institutions, but not a very intense one. We are given hope in Harry Potter that a good government is possible after Voldemort is defeated. But in the Hunger Games, the state is the enemy; it needs to be destroyed, not ignored or fixed. As characters throughout Catching Fire repeatedly tell the heroine: “Remember who the real enemy is.”
In the larger context of the series, the real enemy isn’t just one particular tyrant, but political authority in general. Near the end of the third book, a group of rebels determined to overthrow the government responsible for the hunger games fight their way to the capital. As they engage in the final pitched battle for control of the city, Katniss witnesses a plane bomb a group of children who have been placed around the presidential palace as a human shield. When the bombing stops, several first responders rush to the area to tend to the wounded. And then the plane drops a second load of bombs on them. In the military realm, this is a tactic known as “double-tap bombing”, and many claim the United States has engaged in it during the course of the drone war. Whether true or not, mere reports of that could undermine some Americans’ belief in their own institutions.
Katniss comes to believe that the rebel leader (President Coin) ordered these bombings. At the very end of the third book in the series, after the rebels have emerged victorious and Coin put in power, Coin orders Katniss to kill the defeated tyrant in a public, state-sponsored execution. Instead, disgusted by the bombings, she kills the leader of the rebel party. The ultimate fate of the society is never really made clear, and we are left with a sense of unease as Katniss tries to pick up the shattered pieces of her life.
It’s one thing for Ronald Reagan to quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” This is the sentiment often embodied in the Harry Potter series, even if Rowling does occasionally venture into darker territory. It’s quite another when the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and other populist movements express what in certain cases can only be described as rage both toward the dominant political-economic system and to the failure of their movements to achieve any of their real goals. In that sense, the Hunger Games seems to embody the ethos expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s recent piece in The American Interest. Fukuyama argues that popular frustration with American politics answers to a real decay of political institutions that is occurring, in which interest groups capture and corrupt government legislation and a “vetocracy” gives a wide variety of political actors the ability to stop or sabotage basically any given piece of legislation.
As the New York Times review of Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book, put it, “[The series] is the perfect teenage story with its exquisitely refined rage against the cruel and arbitrary power of the adult world.” But it’s not only teenagers today who are railing against what they perceive as arbitrary power. Books and movies are not reducible to their political and social context, but we can see the Hunger Games as in part resonating with a deeper pessimism and cynicism toward political authority than was the case in the 1980s and 90s. We’ve grown up since Harry Potter, but the years have not been kind to us.